Grad students are new programs’ guinea pigs

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Jeffrey Cogliati spent three nights with no sleep to finish a presentation worth only 10 per cent.

It sounds rough, but it was what he did to deal with the challenging masters of architecture program. “We purposely went overkill in order to be able to make these last couple weeks of the semester a bit easier on ourselves.” Cogliati is pushing himself to the limit to become an accredited architect, but his hard work could be for nothing. Alan Shepard, vice-president academic, says Cogliati is taking a professional risk by completing his masters at Ryerson, which isn’t yet an accredited program. “I really respect students who say ‘I’m going to take a bit of a risk on this program’,” he said.

In the span of a decade, Ryerson University has exploded with graduate programs in a quest to propel the school into traditional academia. President Sheldon Levy is banking on these programs to bolster Ryerson’s reputation as a legitimate university. But beyond tuition for a graduate-level education, students are also paying for a trial and error period while the school figures out the right formula.

Ryerson’s graduate school was founded in 2000. Currently, nine PhD and 31 masters programs are offered. Those numbers could jump to 15 and 40 in five years, according to Maurice Yeates, Ryerson’s dean of graduate studies. “It’s a crucial part of reputation building. Your degree is infinitely more recognizable now than it would be if you took that same degree fifteen years ago.”

But exactly how much prestige have the graduate programs garnered after only a decade? Shepard argues grad students bring a certain richness to campus — but they also put cash in Ryerson’s pockets. Roughly 40 per cent of Ryerson’s operating budget comes from tuition and universities are allowed to increase tuition fees yearly by eight per cent for first-year graduate students, compared to around 4.5 per cent for first-year undergrads. In dollar value, post-graduate students bring in more money than most undergraduates. But Shepard says the university isn’t using grad students as cash cows.

Ryerson gets the most money from the provincial government for PhD students. The funding is supposed to represent the actual cost of educating someone at those levels. “No university ‘makes money’ on graduate students,” says Shepard. “Graduate programs tend to be on the expensive side to run, but they’re a benefit on the reputation side.”

In line with Ryerson’s polytechnic roots, the school works with related industries to shape the graduate program. But the developing curriculum can leave students feeling like test subjects. Jermaine Bagnall, Ryerson Students’ Union president, says graduate students refer to themselves as guinea pigs. He says trial and error is frustrating for students spending time and money. “The issues, really haven’t changed and now we have more programs. A concern of students is always having adequate resources for these new programs,” says Bagnall, who is finishing up his masters in documentary media.

Ryerson can’t keep the graduate programs stocked with the newest resources. Research funding has shot up to $23 million from a little over $10 million a decade ago. But everything comes with a price tag.

Jeffrey Yokota has run the masters program in aerospace engineering since it started in 2007. He says the field is rapidly changing. And that’s why Yokota doesn’t have a plane to teach with. Some students may feel disappointed, but airplanes aren’t wise research investments — there’s the risk they’ll become outdated. Grad students also need other resources like software that the school just can’t afford.

And while graduate students can’t depend on the school for equipment, Ryerson relies on them for the school’s most coveted output — research.

Tas Venetsanopoulos, Ryerson’s vicepresident research and innovation, says every journal article written by postgraduates makes the school look more reputable. This focus on academics has pushed even Ryerson’s more technical degrees to be tweaked to form researchbased masters programs.

The School of Fashion is one of Ryerson’s oldest; training students for more than 60 years. The first Master of Fashion students will join Ryerson in September 2010. According to Sandra Tullio-Pow, the graduate program director for fashion, the new program is meant to take students beyond the technical skills offered at the undergraduate level.

But some, like fourth-year student Kaarina Taskila, want to give it a few years to incubate before jumping in. Taskila doesn’t know anyone entering the masters program here, though she said a few classmates are doing their masters in fashion at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, which offers a prestigious program in London, England. Why not Ryerson? “It takes a really long time to build that kind of reputation.”

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